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What we can learn from... Warframe

From a slow start, Digital Extremes built a service game to rival Destiny, defying every convention along the way

This is the first in a series of articles examining what the industry can learn from single topics, such as games, research and trends.

Warframe is a cult loot shooter that is simultaneously remarkable for what it's achieved and unremarkable in embodying many trends of recent years. Digital Extremes' game is symphonically AAA and lean, PC and free-to-play, bewilderingly complex and immensely popular. It simply does not conform to norms, yet manages to be beautifully playable and endlessly fascinating.

Launched by Unreal co-creators Digital Extremes in 2013 -- as the Canadian studio's last ditch attempt to save itself -- Warframe was met with a mediocre reception. Over the last six years, however, it has grown quietly, layering features while porting to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and, most recently, Nintendo Switch.

According to estimates provided by SuperData, Warframe's revenue has grown an average of 27% year-on-year, reaching $182.5 million in digital revenue across 2018 -- a figure that is comparable to the significantly higher profile Destiny 2, which has an estimated $300 million in digital revenue for 2019.

Warframe's slow, silent growth, with no release fanfare, allowed it to slip by so many of us. This stealth success means we may have missed the important lessons we can gain from such a unique game.

1. Run the marathon

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Will Luton

Digital Extremes embraced lean principles for Warframe, with lead designer Scott McGregor calling the initial release "the smallest thing we could get out." GameSpot gave it a disappointing score of six out of ten at launch, but following years of constant improvement the review team recently upped the verdict to an eight. This rescoring draws attention to ostensibly the most notable lessons from Warframe; developing service games is a long grind of constant improvement. At least, it is for those that are successful.

In fact, much of Warframe's success can be traced not only to the quality of its releases, but also the speed and frequency. New content and new gameplay has kept players coming back (and spending) for over half a decade already. This makes good business sense too, as keeping existing players is much more cost effective than acquiring new ones.

But light launching also gave Digital Extremes insight into the wants and needs of its players, letting the team build only features that are both wanted and needed, avoiding costly and unnecessary development. This player-developer integration also builds a grassroots community with a sense of involvement and ownership over the product, which for Warframe has granted life-giving virality.

2. Grow your community to grow your game

"We wanted to be in the thick of it in alpha... We wanted to see where the problems were... It had us glued to the forums" -- Rebbeca Ford, live ops and community director.

Digital Extremes' symbiotic relationship with its player base has been present from early in Warframe's life, with the team fostering discussion with players through forums, streamed Q&A and via email. This close bond resulted in one of Warframe's most iconic features: The parkour-like movement. Players had found an exploit that broke jumping and allowed a player's Tenno (their avatar) to ping great distances across the map. This movement became popular, but was open to abuse and needed patching.

"Warframe simply does not conform to norms, yet manages to be beautifully playable and endlessly fascinating"

Rather than simply patch the exploit, the Warframe team listened to players and decided to bring a more controlled implementation of the movement into the game. It revolutionised the way playing Warframe felt, but it also made the community feel heard. During this same period, Digital Extremes was experiencing difficulty getting coverage from a PC gaming press reluctant to cover free-to-play games, but goodwill from the community spilled over to YouTube, where influencers began talking up the title.

This early YouTube buzz created a viral impact that has been the backbone of Warframe's ongoing growth. Simply put, nurturing a community that supports your work and feels involved in your game will result in evangelism and influencer endorsement that feels genuine. Therefore, hiring experienced community professionals and orienting development to be influenced by community feedback is a worthwhile investment with big upsides.

3. Leverage procedural content

Warframe's early development featured a skeleton staff that understood the need to maintain a service game with lots of content. The team made a smart decision: build levels procedurally. Each mission inside the game is randomly generated from a tile-set, with each set depicting an environment and supporting unique features. This approach gives greater replayability depth, as the same mission can feel different each playthrough. It allows for mechanics that encourage players to revisit content without it feeling like mindless grind.

When designed well, "proc gen" can let small teams build games that feel vast. It can also allow for emergent gameplay as unintended mechanics bump up against each other, resulting in unexpected scenarios. The king of this approach is Dwarf Fortress, a title that creates epic gameplay scenarios despite a development team of two.

Even as Warframe gained traction and the dev team grew into the hundreds, procedural approaches were maintained. Dynamic difficulty scaling and balancing approaches are used liberally, highlighting Digital Extremes' continued adherence to lean principles even at vast team sizes.

Despite its size and popularity, Digital Extremes employed similar ideas as those used in Dwarf Fortress

Despite its size and popularity, Digital Extremes employed similar ideas as those used in Dwarf Fortress

4. Don't shy away from complexity

"People are smart... They look at Warframe, they see that complexity, and they smell that the game will require mental energy" -- Steve Sinclair, game director

Another similarity to Dwarf Fortress is the unflinching embrace of complexity. Released to the backdrop of an exploding mobile market driven by simplicity and accessibility, Warframe heaped on sprawling, overlapping mechanics with abandon. To compound the inaccessibility further, common gameplay terms were ignored -- Tenno instead of avatar, or Warframe instead of skin.

This makes playing Warframe daunting to a majority of players, but for some it's a dog whistle. The initial exposure to complexity signals (rightly) that there's a lot of strategy at play, but you'll need to work to understand it. This quickly self-selects a subset of highly engaged players and, despite Digital Extremes' efforts to improve onboarding, excludes everyone else.

"The success of Warframe highlights that now, more than ever before in our industry, there are near infinite paths to success"

There are many other examples of this approach, including the infamously bewildering but successful Game of War and its spinoffs, EVE Online, and many of Asia's top grossing titles. For the right audience complexity is not a hindrance to enjoyment, but a reason.

5. Do pay to win -- but do it correctly

One common sentiment from Warframe's community is that it "does free-to-play right." As a veteran free-to-play product manager this makes me flinch a little bit, thinking the game has a soft approach to monetisation. But from deconstructing Warframe's model, I've discovered two things: monetisation is incredibly deep, and it is pay to win.

Warframe offers players the ability to purchase items -- such as premium skins known as Prime Warframes -- that offer strict competitive advantage. This is commonly seen as a big 'no' in PC and console free-to-play titles. How does Warframe not only get away with it, but also appear player friendly?

There are a few answers to that question. Despite some PvP options, Warframe's primary focus is on collaborative PvE, meaning that players are never in direct competition. One player spending does not directly put another at a disadvantage. Secondly, it features a player-to-player economy that allows time rich players to grind for materials that can be sold to cash rich players, making nearly every item available to those willing to graft. Finally, Digital Extremes is highly attentive to player feedback, having rescinded several profitable mechanics due to player backlash. Again, this results in the generation of goodwill towards the game.

So, moving away from zero sum gameplay, allowing reasonable grind to gain content, and observing player feedback allows you to charge for competitive advantage and maintain positive player sentiment. Which in turn allows for greater content depth and appeal than cosmetics alone could ever offer.

Digital Extremes monetises the game through the sale of 'Prime Waframes', which offer gameplay advantages

Digital Extremes monetises the game through the sale of 'Prime Waframes', which offer gameplay advantages

6. Be MMO-ish

Warframe is not what most would consider an MMO but -- in keeping with the lean theme -- Warframe has built an MMO-like structure on top of its core game over the last six years.

Clans, hub-worlds, customisable private spaces, and raid-like missions all add the important social aspects that create deep bonds between players and generate long-term retention. It also makes the game feel alive and, most importantly, gives players their own audience. This audience -- as described in the excellent 2006 research paper Alone Together? -- drives a great deal of player behaviour, including the peacocking of cosmetics, the will to compete, and the impetus to grind content.

Being an MMO isn't a binary option. Smartly picking and choosing MMO-inspired features, while stopping short of building a fully persistent world, will give your game a longevity that it wouldn't otherwise have.

7. Forge your own path

For me, the biggest lesson from Warframe is how Digital Extremes found success outside of convention; perhaps by necessity, but definitely from the strength of its own convictions. The game fits no traditional mould: an independently created, unrelentingly complex, weird sci-fi, free-to-play, AAA, PC MMO-like shooter. It's ostensibly a mess, but it's brilliant.

The success of Warframe highlights that now, more than ever before in our industry, there are near infinite paths to success. This silent hit should encourage us as game makers to build products that observe trends as much as break traditional wisdom. But most of all, Warframe should inspire us all to be bolder in our creative visions, and make games that confound expectations.

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Latest comments (4)

Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 3 months ago
I'd say Warframe compares favorably to Destiny in nearly every way but marketing. Starting with a mediocre launch it has been remarkably consistent in messaging, execution, and plan, just steadily making things better, (mostly) communicating well with players, and generally just the epitome of incremental improvement.

Destiny, on the other hand, has been subject to massive gear shifts with seemingly little concern about how they'd be received, long periods of stagnation, walking back of those gear shifts, a complete wipe of the game (D1 -> D2), D2 making all the same mistakes D1 did, and eye-rollingly bad communication. And yes, the occasional flash of real brilliance. The 'headless chicken' development model.

I don't know how much of this can be laid on Activision, but it's quite clear which game has had competent management and a sane plan that they actually followed.
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I'm a player since 2013. A veteran in the game and for the common knowlegde Mr 23 (1k600hrs misison time). I have one message to say: WARFRAME IS NOT PAY TO WIN in any way possible. Everything, and i mean EVERYTHING can be aquired through gameplay. Those prime frames are not Skins, and even less do they offer an competitive advantage. They have little boosts in stats, and can be aquired through normal farm, but the normal frames are strong by themselves that they can do everything till endgame. What really matters is player skill and moding knowlegde. And yes the market allows you to profit with your grind. Look at me for that reference, haven't spend copious ammounts of money, already have all frames available. Please re-do your monetization section. Thanks for your attention

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rafael Silva de Mendonša on 26th August 2019 5:26pm

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Dan A2 months ago
Gotta come in to agree with Rafael here.

Your section on pay to win is largely misinformed.

First, Prime Warframes are different versions of the basic Warframes with slightly improved stats. You say there's a "competitive advantage" but as you later said, there's no competition to be had, it's a cooperative game. You work together and if anything has been seen in the community, it's that more progressed players in Warframe are always there to help out newer, or less progressed players.

Secondly, Prime Warframes are NOT locked to anybody. They can be obtained by playing missions the same as anything else in the game. You will find DLC bundles containing the newest prime Warfame and weapons as well as cosmetics in Steam's (and other platforms') stores, but these only serve to skip the gameplay of obtaining them and to support the devs.

Thirdly, the ONLY thing that cannot be obtained by playing the game are skins (and by that I mean 100% cosmetic outfits) created by the community, as they must be purchased to pay the artists. Other than that, ALL Warframes, prime or otherwise, can be obtained within the game reasonably, as can all weapons, and all DE-created cosmetics can be purchased with the premium currency platinum, which itself can be grinded for in the game.

Paying will NEVER give you an advantage over a free to play player, except to get something earlier, in which case you're basically only denying yourself the reason to play new content.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan A on 19th August 2019 2:13pm

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Show all comments (4)
Dan A2 months ago
Gotta come in to agree with Rafael here.

Your section on pay to win is largely misinformed.

First, Prime Warframes are different versions of the basic Warframes with slightly improved stats. You say there's a "competitive advantage" but as you later said, there's no competition to be had, it's a cooperative game. You work together and if anything has been seen in the community, it's that more progressed players in Warframe are always there to help out newer, or less progressed players.

Secondly, Prime Warframes are NOT locked to anybody. They can be obtained by playing missions the same as anything else in the game. You will find DLC bundles containing the newest prime Warfame and weapons as well as cosmetics in Steam's (and other platforms') stores, but these only serve to skip the gameplay of obtaining them and to support the devs.

Thirdly, the ONLY thing that cannot be obtained by playing the game are skins (and by that I mean 100% cosmetic outfits) created by the community, as they must be purchased to pay the artists. Other than that, ALL Warframes, prime or otherwise, can be obtained within the game reasonably, as can all weapons, and all DE-created cosmetics can be purchased with the premium currency platinum, which itself can be grinded for in the game.

Paying will NEVER give you an advantage over a free to play player, except to get something earlier, in which case you're basically only denying yourself the reason to play new content.
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